Humbled England are a national tonic

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 11, 2018

Iceland wasn’t actually the nadir of England’s summer in 2016. The spectacle of the game itself was certainly horrifying, but what followed was arguably worse. It should have been the point at which the country took ownership of the national team’s neuroses and questioned its own part in that bitter relationship. Roy Hodgson’s players may have been the public face of that disappointment, but everyone else was complicit in its taking place.

But instead of a measured autopsy, the torches were lit and the pitchforks sharpened. Raheem Sterling was drawn in misleading caricature in the weeks after and continues to be, while Andy Walker (a likeable and helpful member of the Football Association’s communications team) was opportunistically presented as a symbol of the organisation’s misplaced ego. Sterling’s was the more egregious and damaging case, but both were dreadfully unfair.

It had happened again. Perhaps it was naive to expect any different, but it always seemed particularly thick-headed that, having watched an England elimination so clearly instructed by inhibition, that no wider introspection took place. Nationalistic jingoism and fervour is nearly always unhelpful – haven’t we learned that lesson the hard way – but middle ground surely had to be found between the flag waving and myopic negativity.

On reflection, that was not a good time to be English. With the country still wincing from the EU Referendum, then came the audible mockery of a million thunderclaps. It was a stiff and swift combination to the native jaw and, to this day, our legs haven’t recovered. Both were once-in-a-generation humilations and they occurred within weeks of each other.

Consider the legacy of that month. More specifically, question what it was to be an aspiring English footballer at that point in history. A child is brought up to believe that winning international honours is the apex of a career and yet, beyond personal achievement, where was the motivation to graduate to that level. Why would anyone want to represent England? The sporting and financial incentives might be clear, but where would the deeper pride have been in wearing that crest and singing that anthem.

It’s actually remarkable that we haven’t had to confront that situation already. If the mood persists, it can surely only be a matter of time before someone pre-emptively ends their international career. Footballers may typically exist in a vacuum, but only the truest hermetic seal could prevent them from knowing what almost everybody else already does: that this country’s values are at a perilously low ebb. It’s a nasty and vengeful place, split between a sociopathic lack of compassion on the right and cultish, public school socialism on the left. How long can anybody belonging to the disenfranchised middle be expected to listen to arrows whistling overhead before they decide that public association really isn’t for them?

“I’m not English, I’m just me.”

Four international breaks a season and a whole summer off; it’s a stronger argument than it used to be.

Sadly, there isn’t really even the suggestion of change. At the time of writing, a misinformed right-wing protest is knuckle-dragging its way through London under false pretences and, sadly, the print isn’t even dry on the latest media attack on a young, black footballer. On the horizon, the Brexit clouds continue to gather and the sun in the sky is beginning to look awfully dim.

And yet the England players en route to Russia offer temporary respite. With the country raging through its list of other grievances, they’re the object of little more than warm goodwill. It’s welcome, but it’s strange – and likely predicated on something greater than just sport.

Expectations are low and that certainly helps, but the enthusiasm for this group of players cannot be traced to that alone. There’s recognition that anything beyond a quarter-final would be a near miracle, but that’s still enough to incubate casual optimism. More curious still, among the majority there seems to be a cheerful determination to enjoy whatever this will be for as long as it lasts. England will actually take fewer supporters to Russia than any other tournament in recent memory – that’s certainly a barometer of something – but back home the mood is benevolent. Nobody expects the best, but most seem to be hoping for it.

The explanation for that doesn’t lie in experimental formations or a burgeoning talent pool, but in the changing world. As recently as five or ten years ago, footballers were a loathed class of people. They were the emblem of particularly pervasive strain of narcissism. The icons of those eras weren’t universally disliked, some were actually fine role models, but the profession itself had a dreadful image. It was a do-what-I-want-because-I’m-me kind of world in which the occupants were offended by not getting that extra £10,000 a week. They were easy to idolise but impossible to love.

It’s difficult to know whether footballers have been humbled, or whether everyone else is just much, much worse. Whatever the truth, they no longer occupy the same place. Their contracts grow more lucrative and they remain as indulged as ever, but the same distance doesn’t seem to exist between them and their public. In relation to the detached politicians, who divide and disillusion with every move they make, or the bankers who upended the global economy, footballers don’t seem nearly as villainous.

In England’s case, they’re actually likeable. Most of the current squad in Premier League, albeit within the stage-managed confines of the mixed zone, exude normality. Some are more confident than others, a couple are clearly wary of even the most insignificant member of the media, but there’s little of the corrosive ego which one would expect to find. That extends further than just the senior team, too. Aidy Boothroyd’s u21 team reached a semi-final in Poland last year and, although the football was nothing remarkable, the lasting memory was of a group of well-brought up, well-mannered and thoughtful young men.

That’s seductive. Especially so given what came before. It would be trite to claim the squad travelling to Russia as being “the best of us”, but they’re certainly not the worst. More importantly, it’s a list of players which feels genuinely representative. There will always be exceptions, but on the whole these are players who align with the notion of what contemporary Britishness is supposed to be. Not what it is on the surface, that’s still just seething hate-spiel and rhetoric, but a truer (perhaps idolised) definition. These are players from all sorts of social and geographical backgrounds who, in some cases, have overcome momentous challenges to be where they are.

How powerful. That the squad is short of stars makes it more so; nobody is beyond aspiration. Harry Kane is arguably the one truly world-class player at Gareth Southgate’s disposal and yet, somehow, his success remains attainable. Kane is clunky and awkward, almost comedically normal, and his goals have been mined from thousands of hours of training ground graft. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, too, seem like normal young adults doing extraordinary things, and Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and John Stones are nobody’s idea of glinting superheroes.

Dele Alli perhaps might be. A recent clothing endorsement now has his face looking out from billboards up and down the country, and he’s blessed with the easy charm and talent which makes superstardom seem inevitable. Underneath that though, and beyond the antagonistic streaks of his playing personality, lies an inspirational tale. He had an extremely rough start in life, was exposed to the kind of childhood chaos which can often devour potential, and yet here he is.

Alli can bend the rules on the pitch and enjoys inciting opposition fans with his ability. But with his club colours put away until August, he’s now an English player – simultaneously representing the hardship which loiters in the class structure and helping to light the path away from it.

Raheem Sterling is much the same. The tabloid media have discovered that waving him in front of their readership is an effective trick, presumably because he tweaks one of their myriad prejudices, but he is absolutely someone to be celebrated. When the story about his latest tattoo broke, for instance, the detail which deserved attention was the justification behind it. Sterling’s father was murdered when he was barely out of infancy and that revelation should serve to stress how important his family’s emigration was. In the longer term, it makes a far broader point about the United Kingdom’s role in the world and what, with the right opportunities, it can help people achieve. Consider what his life could have been like and look at what it has become; he should spend his money to the sound of our applause.

The will for these players to succeed comes from many different places, not least the need for a break from the national narrative. Football teams may not be built to make profound statements about the countries they represent, this one definitely doesn’t need that burden, but it has the capacity to suspend some of the doom. It’s not surrounded by inflammatory bluster, it will not travel with any sort of entitlement, and it doesn’t possess any of the undesirable traits which the country at large seems intent on acquiring.

When was the last time someone travelling to Europe on a UK passport was able to say that about themselves?

Essentially, this England team is a figurative antidote. They will not actually cure anything and they won’t change the way we live, but they might just be the first demonstrable show of Britishness for some time which doesn’t make the country cringe. And that is worth more than winning. Particularly now, particularly when the air is so thick with disillusionment.

A country needn’t love its government, in fact it’s better if it doesn’t, but sometimes it needs its football team. This is that side. It’s not special in any way and probably isn’t destined for anything remarkable, but the reflection shouldn’t make anyone turn away.

England World Cup 2018
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